The drone in Indian ragas – Derek Bailey and Bill Viola

By coincidence two books I dipped into the other evening had particularly relevant sections talking about the use of the drone in Indian traditional music.


First, Derek Bailey’s book Improvisation: Its nature and Practice in Music, which opens with two chapters in Indian Music. Bailey explains the way a Raga is structured and how improvisation is used to create each piece.

A svara is selected and used as a centre around which melodic activity can take place. Most of this activity is in srutis acting as satellites of the svara. The whole of the activity can take place over a continuous drone or fundamental. If a singer is taking part in the perormance, the drone, or shadja, is chosen by the singer and all the instruments tune to that. (p3)

I’ve been thinking about the two first Rhythm & Drone performances and how to structure them. The first, in Romney Marsh, I’m planning to loosely base on the structure of a raga. (The second one is based on my new fluxus-style score Holon Music.)

… The raga is also the framework within which the musician improvises it is divided into two halves. The first, the alapa, forms an out-of tempo slow introduction. The second, the gat, is played over the tala, the rhythmic cycle, and the characteristic material of the raga is treated in various standard ways. (p5)

While Bill Viola is best known as a video artist, his background is in experimental and electronic music, having worked with David Tudor amongst others. Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House is a collection of writing and notes from the artist’s archive. In it he mentions twice his analogy between video as a medium and Indian traditional music.

Musically speaking, the physics of a broadcast is a type of drone. The video image perpetually repeats itself without rest at the same set of frequencies. This new common condition of the drone represents a significant shift in our culturally derived thought patterns. It can be evidenced by contrasting another drone-based system, traditional  Indian music, with our own European classical music.

Western music builds things up, piling notes on top of notes, forms on top of forms, in the way one would construct a building, until at last the piece is complete. It is additive: its base is silence, all musical sounds proceed from this point. Indian music, on the other hand, begins from sound. It is subtractive. All the notes and possible notes to be played are present before the main musicians even start playing, started by the presence and function of the tambura. A tambura is a drone instrument, usually of four or five strings, that, due to the particular construction of its bridge, amplifies the overtone or harmonic series of the individual notes in each tuned string. It is most distinclty heard at the start of the performance, but is continually present throughout. The series of overtones describes the scale of the music to be played. Therefore, when the primary musicians play, they are considered to be pulling notes out of an ongoing soundfield, the drone. (p160-161)

Here’s some music to put these quotes into context, played by Ravi Shankar.


One thought on “The drone in Indian ragas – Derek Bailey and Bill Viola”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s